Wanda Corn: Distinguished Lecturer WOWS at The McNay

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What a great way to spend a few hours! Wanda Corn, the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University, held the overflowing Chiego Auditorium rapt at the McNay on August 22nd. She was brought to San Antonio as a Louis A. and Frances B. Wagner Lecture Series Distinguished Lecturer. The subject was one that many may believe they understand fully — Norman Rockwell — that maudlin old fuddy-duddy.

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Easy to take for granted, there was a time in America when Rockwell’s illustrations were ubiquitous. His client list read like a Who’s Who of the Fortune 500 (ca. mid-20th century, of course) and he painted 321 covers for The Saturday Evening Post between 1916 and 1963. His “Four Freedoms” posters sold about $133 million in War Bonds during WW II. His last image for The Post was his portrait of John F. Kennedy. After that, his work at Look focused very much on social justice, in keeping with the important works of The Great Society and the civil rights struggle taking place at the time. The Problem We All Live With is my favorite. Today, it lives in Steven Spielberg’s collection.

As The Modernist Movement gained ground and critical momentum, the illustrations “sharing the America I knew and observed with those who may not have noticed” increasingly fell out of favor. Really, too simple, too low-brow, to be taken seriously by the avant-garde. Even today, there is still a debate afoot in art circles as to whether Norman Rockwell’s work even deserves to be exhibited in serious museum collections.

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As an illustrator, Rockwell executed his compositions as paid product — advertising fare, broad and easy to read — accessible, if you will. Although the art that he produced was in the form of full- sized oils on canvas, Corn reminds us that it was never exhibited that way. The work was only seen in print media as a magazine cover, ad, or posters. And he always demurred from the title “artist.” As Rockwell very modestly put it, “Some people have been kind enough to call me a fine artist. I’ve always called myself an illustrator. I’m not sure what the difference is. All I know is that whatever type of work I do, I try to give it my very best. Art has been my life.”

In “Ways of Looking,” Corn very deftly crafted a lecture that helped us to see and understand Rockwell as the fully wrought artist that he was, while maintaining the distinction drawn between the classification of fine arts and illustration. Corn first seriously started looking at Rockwell professionally in 1998 when she was called upon to write an essay for a traveling exhibit. In her talk, she put forth the idea that art historians should bring the skill of looking to the  wide range of ways that painters deploy their skills. In the case of Rockwell, she did this primarily focusing on three of his works —  Art Critic (1955), Triple Self-Portrait (1960), and The Connoisseur (1962). She chose to focus on one aspect — the way he illustrated the “act of looking” and variations on the way we look. Corn also made an important case for holding on to the distinctions of genre while stepping away from the hierarchical approach to art history. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but it certainly is different — to lump it all together, is to undercut it all. Understanding those differences through study is critical — thus the movement toward the study of “Visual Culture” rather than “Art History.” An idea worth considering.

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With humor and a depth of precedents, Corn led us briskly through a slide presentation that meticulously and thoughtfully laid out Rockwell’s very self-conscious and serious study and knowledge of Fine Art. His personal library of art books and catalogues. The postural reference in his Rosie The Riveter to Michelangelo’s Isaiah in the Sistine Chapel. The way he inserts himself into the history of self-portraiture with the inclusion of clippings of Durer, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, and Picasso, in Triple Self-Portrait. His efforts to “get Pollock right” in The Connoisseur. Each painting full of examples and references that imbue the piece with so much beyond the simple story — without belaboring the point. And that is what made Rockwell the ultimate story-teller:  No story was too small or insignificant for his attention. And his attention was minute.

“Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera” closes September 1, so this is your last opportunity to check the exhibition out, if you haven’t already. We were there for the opening but didn’t actually get a chance to walk through until this past week. Opening night was insane. I think everyone in San Antonio and the surrounding counties must’ve been bussed in — seriously! The place was literally mobbed.

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Ultimately, I am glad that I was able to enjoy the show in silence  with only Wanda Corn’s words echoing in my ear. Rockwell’s way of seeing was truly quite brilliant. He employed models — many were real-life friends and neighbors, some were pros — to deftly work out his vision and composition. In later years, beginning around 1935 he employed professional photographers to achieve his ends, acting as art director extraordinaire during these shoots. Rockwell related his philosophy, “Do anything and everything, but get your story on film even if it kills the model and you too!”

Rockwell obviously had mixed feelings regarding the photography: ” It seemed a low form of cheating, a dishonorable crutch for lazy draftsmen, a betrayal of artistic principals. Am I an artist, or a photographer?” From where I stand, clearly a gifted artist. Observing the photos, the sketches, the finished paintings and the resulting cover art is truly an education. Rockwell very successfully transformed the workman-like photography into magic. His manipulation of expression, from the subtle tilt of a head, to the way the eyes cut, or even the grip on a dripping ice cream cone, is nothing short of masterful. And no one has ever worked a brow line like Rockwell! Far from simply translating a photo to a finished canvas, the photo was only the rough sketch of where he wanted to take an idea. The exhibit very succinctly allows you to absorb Rockwell’s process — very enlightening. If you are still looking for something to do in the A/C during your Labor Day holiday, I hope this show will make it to your short list. Plan your trip here.

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And in the future, make a point of attending the lecture. It will add miles to your experience!

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